Today we left Ranohira and headed towards the beautiful coastal town of Ifaty at around 8.30 am. Unfortunately, Sue had eaten something and had contracted a mild dose of food poisoning which manifested itself during the night. However, by the morning, after showering she felt well enough to face a long bus journey. One other member of our party had also come down with something similar and despite antibiotics was unable to continue. Wisely, she and her partner decided to remain at the hotel until we return in two days.
With nearly a full day’s drive ahead of us a kind couple from Wales gave up their front seats for Sue to lay down. For the first hour or so the roads were good with few potholes, so we all had a comfortable. As we entered an area with mile after mile of scrubland the road surface deteriorated and Sue began to regret her decision.
This part of Madagascar is known for its sapphires, many of the small towns we passed through were thronged with shops and shacks dealing with these gemstones. We came across small clusters of tiny one-roomed shacks, temporary living quarters for the hard-working miners. The stones lay some 10-12m below the surface, hidden among tons of gravel which has to be dug and sifted by hand. One section of road over a small river had been destroyed in the cyclones earlier in the year, this meant that we had to make a short detour and navigate through a shallow part of the watercourse before continuing our journey. Dropping down to the level of the river we could see that there was great activity all along the bed of the river. Hundred of people were digging the gravelled bottom, searching for the elusive blue gems and carrying them away in large plastic containers. Easier letting the river erode the surface away down to the gravel level than using a pick and shovel! We stopped for a while to stretch our legs and take photos.
Carrying on we were now in the driest part of the island, shrubs and trees are stunted and the parched, red soil seemed to cry out for moisture. The settlements here are very poor, just to fetch drinking water entails a walk of many kilometres. It now
became apparent why the guides had asked us not to throw away our empty bottles of water. They must have filled the dozen or so we had used and filled them with tap water from our last hotel. Now our coach pulled up just short of these villages whereupon the inhabitants sprinted towards us squealing with delight as the water was handed out from the windows. The expressions on the native’s faces as they received this life-saving gift will remain with me for the rest of my days. We take this precious liquid too much for granted in the UK.
As we neared the coast the road improved and Sue perked up enough to take on the passing scenery but it wasn’t long before we turned off the tarmac onto another dirt road. We were relieved to discover that this was a lunch stop in a very acceptable modern restaurant set in picturesque gardens, though the French menu required some interpretation.
Before arriving at our destination we made a prolonged stop in Ifaty to allow some in our party to draw cash from an ATM and others to exchange money at a bank. Money exchange involves a lot of documentation and unnecessary bureaucracy and this took an hour. Sitting on a coach in a busy Madagascan city is no fun so I amused myself for a time by handing out a few pens to passing children and then sitting at the back with a few others guessing what the passing adults were up to.
Unusually for this holiday, we checked into the Bamboo Club hotel with the sun still yet to set. We were roomed in individual bungalows, ours being a family one with two large double beds and a single. With Sue still not feeling 100%, I took one double and Sue the other before promptly going to sleep. Leaving her to dreamland I watched a spectacular sunset over the infinity pool and seascape before having the evening meal with the group in the hotel restaurant. I delayed my return by chatting in the bar until 9.30 pm.
Though we were not travelling today in the coach, we were using another mode of transport, the zebu taxi. The alarm was set for 5 am for a 6 am meeting with hot drinks in the restaurant. Sue was feeling better and keen to join the party for a visit to the thorny forest of Reniala Reserve.
It was just becoming light when we boarded a small, wobbly cart pulled by two zebus. We attempted to make ourselves comfortable with several thin cushions scattered inside the wooden crate of a carriage before our zebu driver urged his animals into action with a pull on a guide rope and prod with a short stick. Their pick-up was jolting as we joined the cavalcade of other ‘taxis’ rattling down a narrow dusty track, the branches of bushes on either side regularly encroaching, threatening to cause a scratch or a tear. I could see why we were warned to wear long sleeves and hats!
We weaved in and out of the bushy scrubland, our driver fighting the beasts to stay on track with prods to the animal’s flanks. At several points we were flying along, both of us trying to hang on to the side rail in order to remain on board, it was not comfortable but great fun. As the sun began to climb, we eventually reached our destination, a sandy clearing surrounded by cactus-like trees and baobabs. Wagon train fashion we stopped and our group disembarked from their vehicles of pleasurable torture.
The female ranger who guided our hike through the forest turned out to be very knowledgeable with good English. Winding our way through this thorny maze we would stop at each new species as we encountered them, have it named, its uses explained, and given any necessary warnings. Occasionally, we would pause to observe and photograph the insect and bird life encountered. These were found by a couple of male rangers who seemed to be outriders, searching for creatures of interest to we Europeans. Scorpions, large spiders, cockroaches, and grasshoppers seemed in abundance, though bird varieties were decidedly thin on the ground.
Of all the tree species I found the baobabs particularly fascinating, here they were in abundance, many tightly packed together, growing in weird, contorted shapes. We had only seen the traditionally shaped examples up ’till now, these added another dimension to our experience. One even looked like a canoe!
Finding the way back to our unique ‘taxi’, we again boarded our crates for a most uncomfortable breakneck charge back to the hotel. They were either on a tight schedule, or the drivers enjoyed subjecting their clients to a white knuckle, slalom, where on a couple of occasions I feared we would tip over.
We devoured a late breakfast before Sue retired to our bungalow to sleep, while I took a walk down the beach, then swam in the sea to cool off after a hard session of collecting shells Neither of us bothered with lunch.
Late in the afternoon Sue and I took a walk along the beach for her to see if any of the stalls had anything she wanted to buy, but they hadn’t. Mildly annoying were the beach hawkers trying to sell their trinkets, but thankfully they weren’t too persistent. The sun was setting as we climbed the beach steps to the hotel and squeezed our way through the photographers in swimwear trying to capture that magic moment. We ordered our evening meal and then retired to rest on the beds until grub time.
We breakfasted on bread, fruit, and eggs before returning to our bungalow. I had planned a walk for the afternoon but the morning had taken it out of Sue, so I left her sleeping while I took a walk down to the beach, collected shells, and went for a swim.
The evening meal became an issue. We had ordered our food late in the afternoon as we were advised the restaurant would be busy at 7.30 pm when were to eat as a group. Still suffering, Sue had just chosen a bowl of chips, and I selected a starter and main course. After the usual half-hour delay, my starter arrived with a bowl of chips. As I waited for the main course we were entertained by a noisy and colourful Malagasy folk band and dance troupe. The next course began to arrive, but mine and a few others failed to appear. Another half an hour passed and just mine and the couple sat next to me were left empty plated, though part of their order did make an appearance. Grabbing the waiter I was assured it was on its way, Sue by now had left for her bed. Time passed and I was informed it would arrive in 10 minutes, most of our group had now departed with full stomachs. Fifteen minutes later I’d had enough and vented my frustration on the staff and called for the manageress. Demanding to see an itemised bill, I discovered that on the previous evening I was being billed for a meal not ordered. Listing what I was going to pay for, I doled out the cash and stomped off without zebu steak and vegetables nestling comfortably in my stomach, leaving the lady to the wrath of the other unfortunate couple.
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